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How the Neocons Misread Machiavelli

Power Politics Betrayed

by FIRMIN DeBRABANDER

It is said that the now notorious Neo-Cons owe much to that dark prince of political theory, Machiavelli. Indeed, they invoked classic Machiavellian arguments in lobbying for military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq: we must bring the war to the terrorists’ doorstep instead of waiting for them to visit us; we must be martially aggressive to reassert our power and economic independence; we must reinforce the image, tarnished after 9-11, that we are a nation not to be provoked. And yet, while the Neo-Cons now assert that we must stubbornly remain in Iraq for many, many years to come, Machiavelli would most certainly call the troops home. For, this faltering campaign–coupled with the growing disaster in Afghanistan–offends his principles gravely.

The president’s last budget asked for $315 billion to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the next two years, and the Pentagon requested nearly $500 billion for the same campaigns. Despite this gross expenditure, our forces are losing ground to the Taliban, of all people–whom we supposedly dispatched in 2002–and to disparate, competing paramilitary groups in Iraq. To put it starkly, we expend over 3/4 of a trillion dollars in combating sub-national, third world forces. And struggle mightily against them. In point of fact, their ‘Improvised Explosive Devices’ devastate our technically sophisticated soldiers. We have been bombarded for several months now by the horrifying brain damage these ‘Improvised’ weapons wreak. With each spike in military spending, our humiliation grows.

Machiavelli would never stand for such humiliation. He was obsessed with political reputation, famously advising distasteful tactics for securing a good one. Above all, he insisted, sovereigns must exude military might, to pacify potential adversaries abroad and restless masses at home. What, one should ask, is the present perception of our ‘military might’ mired in Iraq and Afghanistan? Machiavelli would sputter about how we are becoming a laughingstock. How is this present military showing supposed to deter assaults on American interests and inspire domestic pride and confidence? Future foes are only encouraged and emboldened as we falter against far inferior armies.

This state of affairs is not the fault of our troops, but of the tacticians and sponsors of this war, rather. Why are we wasting resources on a war in Afghanistan, for example, which this administration either considers already lost, or has no intention of winning. What else are we to conclude when the Taliban is on the march, the heroin harvest reaches record highs, and yet the president reduces our presence in Afghanistan, transferring troops for the surge in Iraq? In this case, not only are we toiling for naught in Afghanistan, but we are actively constructing an image of incompetence. Those poor troops remaining in Afghanistan must accept the indignity of losing to the Taliban — and barely hanging on in Kabul– with the whole world looking on.

In his typical cynicism, Machiavelli asserts that it is perfectly natural and normal for princes to yearn for conquest, and they are praiseworthy when they succeed in conquest, and blameworthy when they fail. In other words, if you go to war, make sure you win, for if you don’t, you lose a lot more than the war, but also your honor and security. Concretely, this means that we must henceforth refrain from halfhearted efforts in either of the present wars, and dedicate ourselves wholeheartedly to one or the other. Or alternately, this means that we must remove our soldiers, our contractors, our humvees, our camps and fortresses–anything emblazoned with the American flag–from the carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan that is televised across the globe (especially on Al Jazeera), transmitting our disgrace and weakness to any and all potential aggressors.

For, it is not so much hatred and anger that inspires enemies to attack the prince, Machiavelli maintains, but the perception that he is weak. In fact, such a perception multiplies the prince’s adversaries, for it emboldens those who are merely greedy for power and attention. Simply put, the great offense of the present wars is, ironically, that they undermine this nation’s dignity and fearsomeness–precisely what the Neo-Cons purported to reclaim and defend in the first place.

FIRMIN DeBRABANDER is a Professor of Philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Email: firmind@msn.com